At the ACC's football kickoff event last summer, Commissioner John Swofford announced two new postseason bowl affiliations that would begin with the 2006 season. For the 2005 season, though, the expanded 12-team league would have to make do with just six automatic tie-ins.
"We're probably a little short on bowls for one year," Swofford said. "We'll want to do everything we can possibly do to have a home for all of our bowl-eligible teams if at all possible. But that will be a challenge this particular year."
Entering the final month of the ACC's regular season, though, the challenge is slightly different than expected. There could be far more than six bowl-eligible teams: up to nine, 10 or even 11 ACC teams could theoretically finish with the requisite six wins. Or, for the first time in its history, the ACC could fail to fill its bowl slots; at least one realistic scenario would leave just five teams with a winning record.
"That's just the kind of season it is in this conference right now," Virginia Coach Al Groh said during a conference call with reporters Sunday. "There seem to be so many teams that are in a position or in a necessity to fight their brains out to try to win six."
The explanation for such a glut of possibilities lies in the league's top-heavy nature this season. Four schools -- Virginia Tech, Miami, Florida State and Boston College -- are already bowl eligible and nationally ranked, giving the ACC more top 20 teams than any conference other than the Southeastern Conference. Those four schools are a combined 13-1 against the rest of the league. And the excellence at the top yields to parity in the middle, with half of the league's teams having either three or four wins and straddling the postseason fence.
"I think we're a better team than 4-4 but we've got to go out and prove it," said Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen, whose team needs to win two of its final three games to qualify for the postseason. "When you look at it, we're all about .500 other than the top four. Whoever's going to finish the strongest is going to get a chance to go to the bowl games."
If there are too many bowl-eligible teams, the possible surplus destinations include the two bowls with guaranteed at-large berths: the Liberty Bowl in Memphis and the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego. Swofford said yesterday the conference has already been in touch with several other bowls that might have openings if their conference affiliations fall through.
And if there are too few eligible teams?
"I'll be surprised if we don't have six, but that could happen," Swofford said. "To be going into November with 11 teams having a shot at bowl eligibility is I think a real positive thing. . . . It keeps fans interested deeper into the season and it keeps a carrot out there in front of the players and coaches in terms of postseason possibilities. The longer that goes, I think the better it is for the league."
Adding to the confusion is the possibility that the ACC could send two teams to the Bowl Championship Series for the first time. Virginia Tech, ranked third in this week's BCS standings, likely would receive one of two at-large berths to one of the four BCS games if, for example, its first loss came in the ACC championship. That would then scramble the resulting bowl pecking order; the Gator Bowl would be choosing the third ACC team instead of the second, and the Meineke Car Care Bowl and MPC Computers Bowl could both be left without an ACC team if only five qualify.
"We need another week or two before I start getting heartache over that," said Will Webb, the executive director of the Meineke Car Care Bowl. "It's a crazy season; there's so much parity in the middle. I don't think this season's unfolded at all the way anybody expected."
In any case, Virginia, by virtue of its meeting this Saturday with lowly Temple and its three remaining home games, is among the best-situated of the ACC's three- and four-win teams. While the Cavaliers are the ACC's only middle-of-the-pack team with a win against one of the Big Four (Florida State), they still must face Virginia Tech at home and play at Miami. So their postseason fate could hinge on their Nov. 12 game against Georgia Tech; that game will begin at 3:30 and be televised regionally on ABC, the league announced yesterday.
All things being equal, the ACC prefers for its schools not to attend the same bowl twice in a row; the Cavaliers went to Charlotte in both 2002 and 2003, and to Boise last year.
Maryland, which has a bye this week and also has four wins, plays two of its final three games on the road. The Terps travel to North Carolina and N.C. State; in between is a home game against Boston College. The North Carolina game will be played at either noon or 7:15 p.m.; the decision will be made by ESPN no later than Sunday.
Six wins could send Maryland to Boise, which has the fifth pick of non-BCS teams and has never hosted the Terps.
"Obviously, it'd be a big draw for us because they've never been here, and we'd love to have an opportunity to invite them," said Gary Beck, executive director of the MPC Computers Bowl.
The payoff for a postseason appearance varies in proportion to the prestige of the bowl, ranging from the mid-six figures to about $14 million for a BCS game -- the Fiesta Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Orange Bowl or Rose Bowl.
Elsewhere, Navy also needs two wins in its final four games to become bowl eligible, and its four remaining opponents -- Tulane, Notre Dame, Temple and Army -- have a combined record of 8-22. Without a conference affiliation, the Midshipmen have no bowl tie-ins. But they have sold a combined 43,000 tickets for their previous two bowl games and would be an attractive choice for the Poinsettia, Liberty or Houston bowls, although several other bowls have also made contact with Navy officials. The Poinsettia Bowl is expected to have representatives in Annapolis this weekend, when Navy hosts Tulane.
"I would feel very confident that if we hit the number and get the six wins that we need, we'll be somewhere in the postseason," Navy Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk said. "The bowl execs know that Navy delivers."
Staff writer Mark Schlabach contributed to this report.